Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Francis Beaumont--The Knight of the Burning Pestle (ca. 1607-08)

For most of the last 400 years Beaumont's famous collaborator, John Fletcher, received half-credit for the authorship of this play, but modern scholarship has judged it to be the work of Beaumont alone. After some anguish over this discovery, mainly at the cleverness and authority that other people in my own lifetime have managed to attain upon my own pet subjects, I am at peace with it.

There are a number of things going on in this play which make it somewhat interesting to read, and would probably make it interesting, as well as useful, to see a performance of, as a lot of the scenes and actions are difficult to visualize dramatically just in reading. The plot is a takeoff on Don Quixote, satirizing the standard romances of the day, but even bawdier, and without any inhibiting moral counterpoint. The sex jokes never stop. Indeed, the title itself can be understood in a raunchy manner: the word Burning in the argot of the time, according to the Introduction, would have been suggestive of syphilis to contemporary audiences, while Pestle can still be imagined, with a little exertion, as something naughty even with us. There is also a device of having characters who are supposedly from the audience interjecting into and influencing the course of the play, which characters being at a very crass level of culture I gathered to be a satire on theater audiences. I don't doubt but that somebody recognized as avant-garde has employed this exact device within the last fifteen years, and won the admiration of some beautiful art-girl for it.

In Beaumont's hands the English language, which had attained such heights of noble and elegant expression in the period of literary history that was starting to slow to a close when he came on the scene, retains a rougher, not quite fully tamed character:

"Father, it's true in arms I ne'er shall clasp her,
For she is stol'n away by your man Jasper." (Act II 396-7)


"I know the place where he my loins did swaddle.
I'll get six horse, and to each a saddle." (II 410-1)

Testing women's constancy--not necessary in every case, not desirable in any, as disaster will inevitably ensue. This is one of the top 100 lessons of life that the reader of pre-1700 literature will absorb intact just by immersion, for it is a ubiquitous plot device.

Act III, 275: "...but of all the sights that ever were in London since I was married, me thinks the little child that was so fair grown about the members was the prettiest, that and the hermaphrodite." There is a note explaining that, "Like Jonson, Beaumont is satirizing the citizens' taste for freaks". I must admit, that while the idea of actual freaks doesn't hold much fascination for me, that of freak shows always has. I looked up the passage referred to in Jonson, but I didn't think it was worth transcribing as a stand alone quote.

Interlude IV 44-45:
"Now little fish on tender stone begin to cast their bellies,
And sluggish snails, that erst were mute, do creep out of their shellies."

It is hard to imagine Shakespeare or Spenser or Donne stooping quite so low as to use 'shellies' as a rhyme for bellies, but in general Beaumont deserves some credit for doing some unusual, even odd things to try to distinguish his work amidst the rugged and pitiless ('pitilesse?') competition of the time. There is a note on this passage that "the snails were used in love divinations; they were set to crawl on the hearth, and were thought to mark in the ashes the initials of the lover's name." I have noticed some snails hanging about the threshold of my back door. I will have to keep my eyes peeled for this.

Act V, ll.194-7. More gratuitous bawdiness:
"With hey, trixy, terlery-whisking,
The world it runs on wheels,
When the young man's --- ---,
Up goes the maiden's heels."

I put these in just to prove that I am not alone in my depraved instincts.

A frequent accolade that is bestowed on the works of celebrated authors as one of the qualities separating them from those of lesser ones is that they are "ambitious". This quality as a measure of praise remains uniform across the ages but it has always seemed to me that the nature of this "ambition" as a conscious idea either changes dramatically according to the period in which it originates, or means something more expansive, as well as elusive, than the idea that is suggested by the use of the word in our time. Though it is pretty clear that, in what is traditionally called Western civilization at least, poets and singers and makers of pictures have seen themselves as belonging to a distinct class of people for most of recorded history, their idea of the significance that their art holds in a particular society, or even subsociety, as well as projecting far into the future, affects and distorts the vitality of the arts at various times, including the nature of its ambitions. In the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period in England, a time that compared to our own must be considered fairly primitive as far as the flourishing of accurate knowledge and information went, poets and dramatists found that they were able to conceive of themselves as arbiters of truth and figures in and shapers of the continuum of history, which in turn was itself generally considered to be a worthwhile and exciting process, such that their ambitions, rather than being wholly calculated and daring as we are inclined to believe great artistic achievement must be in our own time, were very much the results of an expansiveness of the artistic mind into wider terrain that the unique circumstances of the time allowed. These men, whose entire potential audience, as far as they knew, consisted of perhaps a few thousand people mostly concentrated in the square mile of the City of London, could with absolute confidence compare themselves on an equal basis with the greatest authors of antiquity, or predict immortality for their work into a future world of which I am certain Shakespeare himself could not have wholly fathomed the cross-cultural immensity and technological and scientific advancement, though perhaps he would have been able to overcome it with his strength of will and personality intact. Obviously I am trying to find some excuse for myself not being able to muster this necessary confidence and clearness of worldview to accomplish anything, but it is not working.

Beaumont was 32 when he died, at which age many of the more ambitious would-be authors today are just getting out of writing school, and the less ambitious ones are starting to realize that they have deceived themselves about their life prospects as far as having any kind of meaningful interaction with the worlds of thought and culture goes. He was not the only author of that general time period to die young. Marlowe only lasted to 29, being famously stabbed in a bar brawl after having been involved in numerous secretive government affairs all over Europe and writing 3 or 4 of the more singular works in the language. Sir Phillip Sidney, though a generation older than Beaumont, was also 32 when he met his demise on the battlefield. Like his similiarly exciting contemporary Sir Walter Ralegh, when he was alive people ranked his poetic talent as about fifth or sixth place among his qualities, as it probably should be in any well-developed man, though he was able to fill a whole volume with verse that remains available in mass market editions and anthologies today, and this in spite of leading an extremely active and dynamic non-writing life as well as dying young. Certainly it was a younger, or perhaps more accurately a less old world at that time, and younger men have the gift both of playing up and having their exploits played up to seem as if they were greater and more significant than perhaps objectively they are. If young men can produce passable and lively art, lead dynamic activity, introduce new ideas and inventions, be dashing in large enough numbers as to keep the women of the country vividly interested in them, it is a sign that the society itself is living, and thriving. The inability of young men in recent years to do almost any of these things well, to assume any real leadership role in most western societies, has had a very powerful negative effect on the level on cultural morale and optimism in these lands. In America with our war there has been some effort to play up the greatness of the young men of the armed forces so as to rouse up the spirit of the nation, but this is strained, I think, by several handicaps, the widespread unpopularity of the government, and by extension the war, to begin with, along with a sense, perhaps untrue but pervasive nonetheless, that the young men in the army do not have much mastery of the situation, and consequently their fates, and that this is in a not insignificant way a failure of the collective intellect, not only of the members of the armed forces but of the greater society as well. There is a certain degree of pressure in all militarized nations to idealize soldiers and the military culture, but I cannot do that except when presented with individual cases of wise and inspired deliberation and judgement that would enable me to feel comfortable trusting my life as well as moral self to that person's hands in the most extreme circumstances. At Sidney's death, it is frequently said, all of England mourned. All of England, I am sure, never mourned anyone, but that part of it that did not could be written out of the story for the sake of amplifying its power, which it does beautifully and effectively; unlike most modern historians, I don't want anyone who didn't mourn Sidney acknowledged as having existed while I am reading an account of his life. The technique only works however as long as the people who are written out don't come back and read the story, which they increasingly and infuriatingly do nowadays.

Beaumont was born in the "new" manor house--it was built in the 1500s--at Grace Dieu in Leicestershire, which is not even described as a town but as the "ivy-clad ruin of an Augustinian Priory". It sounds like a pleasant place to pass a few hours. Beaumont is buried in Westminster Abbey, having gotten in early enough so that he seems not quite worthy of the honor now (especially as the churches and cemeteries where other authors of his general caliber were buried are now parking lots and high-rise apartment buildings). He did however write the charming "Ode on the Tombs in Westminster Abbey" which probably helped his cause a great deal:

"Mortality behold and fear
What a change of flesh is here!
Think how many royal bones
Sleep within this heap of stones:
Here they lie had realms and lands,
Who now want strength to stir their hands."

The Abbey is by far the most frequent spot of pilgrimage which my system would require me to visit. Among the superstars and B-listers buried there are Dickens, Hardy, Tennyson, Johnson, Chaucer, Addison, Spenser, Kipling, Newton, Darwin, Faraday, Elizabeth I, and everybody's favorite king, Henry V, who died aged 35 in the height of his greatness and has the best tomb in the building. It is difficult to really take most of this in when one is there though due to the crowds, the quantity of tombs, etc. Nonetheless it is always the first place I go when I arrive in London, though it is usually closed because my habit when I fly overseas is to go to bed when I arrive, get up around 5 or 6, go to the really iconic site in town and wander around for an hour when the crowds have dwindled, have dinner and a couple of drinks, and go back to bed. In Rome I go to the Vatican, in Paris to the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysee, in London to the Abbey. I am still looking for a good orientation point in New York. I like the Battery a lot in the morning, but it isn't really near anything except the financial district, which is not exactly my home turf. Grand Central Station I like too, though one passes through the train stations in the European cities without them really being the destinations themselves. I don't know. When I was a penniless 19 year old sleeping in Central Park and hoping for magic to strike me I spent a few pleasant days--so much time I had then!--just reading in the grand NYPL building on 42nd Street like I was Lenin or somebody. Maybe I'll try that next time.

Something happened last week, which I wish I could figure out, that resulted in 58 people (besides me) viewing my profile. I also got 4 comments, albeit of an inferior quality, on one of my posts. This traffic has slowed down again, however. You cannot accuse me of striking while the iron is hot.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?